first time traveller

Personal Letter to a First Time Traveller

Rolf is around the same age as me. I’ve been friends with Rolf for more than twenty years. In less than two weeks from now, for the first time in his life, Rolf is about to leave his island home and travel overseas. Far from an amateur journey, Rolf is putting all apprehension aside and heading from Australia, to Malaysia, to the United Arab Emirates (via Sri Lanka I think) and then, he will meet up with myself and Phillipa in Shiraz, my favourite city in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Really, this is one of the most fascinating international journey’s a first-timer could possibly embark upon, and I have wished Rolf a lot of luck. He’s going to need it, LOL.

Today, I decided I should post my next few letters of “advice” to Rolf, here.

Rolf has not previously received these letters, he’s reading this for the first time. He’s agreed that I can use his real name. To bring you up to speed, Rolf has booked his flights just a few hours ago, and will be departing in less than two weeks. I don’t think he’s started packing, because I don’t think Rolf owns a backpack, yet.


sunset nice france
The city of Nice, France. I stayed here for a few weeks earlier this year, and haven’t yet written anything about the French Riviera. My intention was to travel from Nice, to Monaco, down through Italy and tour the “Micro-nations” of Europe. However, I decided it was much more important to fly home and visit a very ill friend. That tour will need to happen, hopefully, some other time.

Letter to Rolf, On Being a First Time Traveller.

Friend, very recently we both suffered a loss. Joel, was a gentleman we both happily called our brother. Now, he is gone. Taken far too soon. Too young. Too early. The biggest downside of a nomadic lifestyle is living so far from good friends and family, I was more than glad to have recently returned home, if briefly, to spend time with Joel, my friends, and my family. Honestly, these last days have been perhaps the saddest I have ever experienced.

But, I know what Joel would have wanted. He was indeed a great man, who lived without limits. Joel wouldn’t want any of his brothers or sisters to remain trapped in grief. As we both know so well, our life indeed is short, and I guess the point is, I’m more than happy to know you are taking advantage of the limited time we have.

Soon, you will be in a foreign land for the first time.

You have decided to leave your home, and see the world beyond the shores of the Indian Ocean. I couldn’t be happier for you. Rolf, I won’t bother telling you all the reasons why I believe travel is so rewarding. What I would say, is you’re about to encounter a new set of life-altering experiences. You will make new friends. Learn new things. During the emotional ups and downs that will occur during the course of the journey, you will grow into a stronger person.

Remember this above all – the journey is the destination. Hackneyed, but true.

So, let’s take this one step at a time.

I’ll write you several letters over the next few days. I know you have booked your flights, and received your first passport. For now, what you need to do, is get prepared. Here’s some advice I thought would be helpful.


Packing – the key to success, is travel light.

The key to packing, is travel light. You’re better off under-packing than over-packing. Every seasoned traveler will give you the same piece of valuable travel packing advice – travel light. Weight will slow you down, restrict your options, cost you time and money, and cause you stress. There are so many things you think will be essential, but they’re not. My 35 litre backpack, when packed, normally weighs between 10 and 12kg’s. This has more than sufficed for almost four years.

Some things you may not think to pack, but they will all be used at some point:

* reusable, strong, water bottle.
* something to wear when swimming, not your underwear (LOL again).
* water proof bag, to store your valuable electronic gadgets for when you’re trapped in the rain.
* small USB thumb-drive.
* large knife for personal protection, as all Australians carry large knives for personal protection. That’s a joke, don’t carry a large knife. Bring a small Swiss-army knife, NOT packed in your carry on.
* a small pouch to keep your passports, tickets, foreign currency safe and organised. Not one of those hidden security pouches that are worn round your waist, just something you can throw into your small carry-on backpack.
* “compression sack” to store your dirty clothes in-between laundry visits.
* a pen.

If you need to buy a bag/backpack, get the lightest one possible. However, don’t sacrifice strength for weight. Look for durability, and pick a brand with a history and reputation to uphold.


Cash, you will need it.

It will come as no surprise, people all around the world use currency that differs from our own. You will need to be prepared for this reality, from the first moment you leave the airport in Kuala Lumpur.

a) you need a credit card – MasterCard or Visa, either is fine. I would suggest you have two cards. Perhaps you don’t have the time to get another. But, try. Have a second card as a backup – just put a small amount of money in the card, enough for living expenses for a few days, and then forget about it.

Things sometimes go wrong – your card may be blocked by your bank for seemingly strange reasons, all in the name of your “security”. The process to have the card unblocked involves calling your bank back home. Making an international call to your bank back home is never fun, and usually painful.

Important – call your bank before you travel, and let them know when and where you are travelling.

b) C.R.E.A.M – Cash Rules Everything Around Me – the king of currencies, worldwide, is the almighty US dollar. The Queen is the Euro. Always carry, I would suggest, several hundred dollars cash in either of those two currencies, no matter what country you are in. These currencies can always be exchanged for the local currency, in case your card isn’t working.

In this strange world humans have created, money is essential. So, if you have a) and b) covered, you’ll be fine. There are a lot of good people on this planet, and you will almost always find someone to assist you in your time of need. But most importantly, you first need to rely upon yourself.

c) If you need to travel longer, you can always make extra cash on the road. Remind me to tell you about my online trading with  Glenmore Investments. The days of sitting behind a desk for 8 hours a day are long gone. And, that link contains a lot of irony, I’ll tell you all about it in person…


first time traveller
Taken on the mean streets of Turin (Torino) in Italy. I spent the last part of 2015 and January 2016 in the North of Italy, catching up with friends. Despite my nomadic ways, the connections I have to good friends all over the world are extremely important to me.
nebet tepe plovdiv bulgaria
Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv, Bulgaria. For the last month I’ve been in Plovdiv – the oldest city in Europe. Plovdiv is slowly becoming a second home to me, and sooner or later, I’m going to let out the secret – this should be one of the most popular short-vacation cities anywhere in Europe. At Nebet Tepe, the archaeological evidence dates back 8000 years.


Electronic gadgets, sure, bring them along.

Laptop, mobile phone, camera. One of each, no more, no less. I know you have the Fuji X100T, that’s great – a small camera that takes incredible photos. Your laptop should also be as small and light as possible. My mobile phone is the single most useful gadget I carry with me. Map, guide, hotel and flight booker, email, social media, translator, takes photos in a pinch, it can even be used as a phone.

If you don’t already have a decent mobile phone, here are my tips:

a) Android all the way. Apple is expensive, Windows Phone is lacking with apps. I’ve used all three, and for me, Android wins. Look for minimum 16GB storage, and a phone that can be expanded with extra storage using a micro-SD card. Buy a 32GB card, that’s the value sweet-spot.

b) don’t spend a lot of money on a phone. They’re disposable devices. If you lose or break a cheap phone, you won’t care. A more expensive phone offers you little extra – your camera will take much better photos than even the best mobile phone camera, and even a cheap Android phone will do everything you need.

c) download an app called HERE MAPS. It’s free, and you can freely download the maps for entire countries. Those maps can be stored on your phone’s SD card. Then, even without an internet connection, offline, your maps will work. Once you have the app installed, set it to store your maps on the SD card, and download the maps for the first few countries you’re planning to visit.

d) download Skype and Viber and set them up. You never know when you’ll need to make a free/cheap phone call. Get the “XE” app, it’s a currency converter. You can pre-load the currencies of the countries you will be visiting, plus your home currency, and easily convert foreign prices whether you have an internet connection or not.


Tickets and bookings, here’s a small tip that seems old fashioned.

Print-out your flight and hotel reservations. I’ve had situations where I couldn’t find a hotel, but with the reservation phone number and a print-out, a helpful local used their own phone to call the hotel, and guide me to where I needed to go. Airlines sometimes charge you excessive amounts if you don’t have your reservation printed.

Always try and check in to your flight online, perhaps the day before, and print out whatever they send you. One day, having your boarding pass printed out before you get to the airport, will save you a lot of money.


joel swadling
This is one of my best friends, Joel Swadling, RIP. Joel was well travelled – I took this photo last year when he came to visit us in Belgrade, Serbia. Joel was also a very private person when it came to the internet. So, I thought long and hard about whether to put this photo here. But, I want to remember Joel, and remember all the happiness he bought to so many people, all over the world. And, I know that one day, people will search for Joel Swadling, and find this photo. It brings tears to my eyes, just typing this.


Rolf, I’m sure you have things to take care of at home. My suggestion, take care of anything that will cause you to stay awake at night, before you leave. You never know how long you will be gone for.

You’ve probably got some of these things under way, to varying degrees.

Just know that once you the journey commences, you certainly will have ups, and downs. Travel is unpredictable. It’s impossible to plan for everything. Sometimes, things won’t go your way. Don’t stress. Assume there will always be someone who will help you. Be optimistic about humanity. It helps. People all over the world are basically good hearted when it matters most. And you are one street-wise mofo, so I’m not worried for a second about you. In fact, I’m very excited, and just a little bit jealous, I’m not aware of anyone else who has visited Iran on their first trip abroad. Nice work.

Tomorrow, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about the amazing city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Stand by.

Your friend,


PS, clearly, after four years, Yomadic remains a very personal blog. This is why I refuse all offers of free hotels, trips, and more – I want to be able to write exactly what I want to write, and I value my readers trust. Rolf is my friend, and I’m doing this to help not only Rolf, but any other first-time travellers. Bon Voyage!

PPS, in two days from now, I’m heading to Turkey, and then Azerbaijan. I’ve got a tonne of photos and stories to catch up on, and I will do my best to get these done before I land in Tehran in April, to run my first Iran tour of 2016. This year I’ve already visited seven countries on three different continents. Now, the journey is really about to begin.

BTW, I would love to send you the next dispatch, posted from some-where random around this planet (and you'll soon find out why YOMADIC email followers are my favourite followers):

15 thoughts on “Personal Letter to a First Time Traveller

    1. That would be amazing. Have you seen those super-lengthy single-shot Norwegian travel docos that go for hours and hours (sometimes days)… I’d love to see “Rolf, the First 7 Days”.

  1. This is such a heartfelt and incredible post- probably my favorite you’ve ever written despite its intended audience not being me. Sometimes it takes tragedy or a punch of reality to realize that we need to get out there and experience something completely different than the world we live in. And while it is intense and scary, it will be the most rewarding thing one can do in their life.

    As for Iran being a first destination- no fear. I took my friend who had only ever been to the US, Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia to Belarus knowing I was possibly banned from the place. She loved the hell out of the trip and still wants to reminisce about the fun we had despite the trip being two years ago.

    After visiting nearly 85 countries and thousands of cities, the only three tips of advice (aside from pack light because that is absolutely imperative!) I can offer first time homeland escapees, or Rolf (if you’re reading this!) are:

    1) Wake up early. Flee wherever you are staying for an hour each morning and leave your camera behind and just admire the city, or wherever you’re at. Seeing a city start the day offers an immediate connection and you can learn so much about the place by how things function shortly after the sun rises. Sometimes I will go sit by the water, outside a random building, or in a park and just watch people and be present in the moment. Nothing makes a person more grateful.

    2) If you like gadgets at all and like being connected (I do), bring a three plug power strip with you. You can use one adapter to plug it into the wall and plug all of your gadgets in without needing adapters. Many times a person is lucky to find one power outlet, let alone two, so this is probably the one thing I can’t travel at all without.

    3) Taxi drivers tend to know the best, quickest, and affordable food options in the city. If you ever want a good meal and fun experience, get into a cab and ask them to take you to where they ate lunch/dinner last. If they speak good enough English or you feel comfortable communicating with them, offer to buy them lunch when there. I asked a cab driver in the middle of Kazakhstan to take me to his favorite place to eat and he took me home to his wife and family and they made me a delicious dinner, which I was definitely not expecting. But his daughter and son spoke English and it was one of my most remarkable travel experiences to date. I especially love doing this in my home country of the US where diversity is insane. I just hop into a cab, ask the driver’s nationality or ethnicity and ask them to take me to their favorite restaurant. I’ve eaten some badass Nigerian food in Chicago, Pakistani food in New York City, and Ethiopian food in Washington DC as a result. People are inherently good, no matter what the BBC or media reports.

    1. Megan, that’s one of the best comments that has ever been left on my blog. Thanks so much. I particularly like the Taxi driver tip – I’m going to use that for sure. Hopefully, one of these days, we will cross paths.

    2. The first and third tips are brilliant! Especially the third. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of it (you can thank all the travel bloggers who warn you about how cabbies can rip you off).

    1. Hi Philip, I’ve been using a Fuji XPro1, with the 18mm lens, ever since Yomadic began. Almost every photo on the entire website is from this same camera and lens.

  2. I understand your hesitation about having your friend’s photo here – it is difficult to guess at the wishes of someone we lost, and we long to ask them. But I wanted you to know that your letter, and the picture of your dear friend, brought me to tears today, happy ones. I am glad that you shared. It provided me with perspective and self-confidence as I anxiously await the onset of my first-time solo journey.

    P.S. I have read everything (I think) you’ve written on Bulgaria, where I will be spending much of my time, and your articles have been the most refreshingly realistic and personal of all the blogs I’ve scoured. Thanks again.

    1. Hey Chris, thanks so much for the comment. To be honest, your comment made me really happy, and sad, and returned all the emotions I experienced around the time of the loss of my friend. Comments like these really make this whole blog worthwhile. Cheers, and good luck with your journey.

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